Trauma and the Dictionary of Dangers
As humans, we—like many animals—have these wonderful safety mechanisms in place to secure our constant survival. Our body systems are on guard, keeping an eye out for any threat to our wellbeing. One way that our bodies accomplish this task of safety is to catalogue threats-- a little dictionary of dangers, if you will. Recording those threatening situations and dangers so that we’ll never wind up in that same, dangerous situation again.
In this way, we are protected. In this way, we’ll never forget. In this way, we stay alive.
And one of the most amazing things that our brains do is to update that little dictionary of dangers. Our minds keep those entries up to date, cataloguing new data to better inform our survival. Once a danger, not always a danger.
But what happens when that catalogue isn’t wanting to update anymore, and you are getting false alarms that something is dangerous even though you’re perfectly safe? What happens when that little dictionary of dangers gets too filled? What happens when your safety mechanisms are boxing you in more and more? Instead of making sure you are alive, it’s keeping you from feeling alive? Where you are surviving—yes—but thriving—no?
Some recent events, coupled with some conversations with clients, have prompted me to reflect on the definition of trauma and the process through which trauma becomes healed.
Defining trauma is an interesting thing in and of itself. I cannot count the amount of times I have had a client fill out their paperwork, answering "No" to the question of whether or not they have experienced trauma, even though they get into session and outline traumatic emotional/verbal abuse throughout childhood. When asked about this, I commonly hear that they thought trauma = being raped, watching a loved one be murdered, serving in active combat, etc. Or that they feel guilty saying that they experienced trauma when there are many people out there that have been tortured or physically abused.
And that's true: there are a lot of people carrying around some serious, jaw-dropping trauma. But that doesn't negate the alerted state experienced by your own system. That does not negate the entry that was recorded in your dictionary of dangers.
I ascribe to a fairly open and flexible definition of trauma. When I think of trauma, I think of any event that sends the body system into alert mode, leaving you feeling compromised physically, socially, sexually, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, etc. This could be as simple as a classmate giggling as you walk past or as complex as repeated sexual abuse throughout the entirety of childhood.
In a lot of ways, I would even agree with a statement like Everyone has experienced trauma in some form. Yes. #Truth.
Everyone has a experienced a threat alert within their body systems. Everyone's bodies have a little dictionary of dangers tucked away for reference.
But the fact that we all experience trauma in some form isn't necessarily the point of focus within a journey of personal growth, within the process of healing, or even within a therapy session. What is the point of focus is typically this: How do you handle and process the trauma experience?
You see, in a regulated, non-overwhelmed, healthy body system, the body moves through the trauma. Like an animal "shaking it off," the individual processes the events and the attached emotions. The body updates that entry in the dictionary of dangers and moves along with life.
Let me share a story to illustrate this. Back when Jamie (my wife) and I were first married, we lived in little house that had an outdoor laundry area. One day, we were working on laundry, and Jamie went to step outside into the laundry room, carrying a basket of laundry. To her surprise, a snake was curled up, just chillaxin', on the step right outside the door. Her body system went into alert mode. The threat was identified. And in the process, Jamie nearly fell backwards in an attempt to get away from the snake. The snake was equally surprised, and it took off further into the laundry area to hide.
Needless to say, I got tasked with completing the laundry that day. And the day after... and the day after. Why? Because Jamie was certain that if she stepped out that door, that snake would be there. Jamie's dictionary of dangers had a new data entry:
Laundry Room = High Chance of Seeing Snake = High Chance of Bite/Interaction
But then a day came where Jamie needed the laundry switched out, and I wasn't around. She carefully walked to the laundry room door while her body system shouted all sorts of warnings, drawing attention to that entry in her dictionary of dangers.
!!!!!Laundry Room = High Chance of Seeing Snake = High Chance of Bite/Interaction!!!!!
She peeked out through the crack in the door before fully opening it. She checked the floor before every step. She moved slowly and carefully, checking every corner. She switched out the laundry. Then, she darted back inside.
And in that moment, her dictionary of danger entry updated: Laundry Room = Chance of Seeing Snake = Moderate Chance of Bite/Interaction
The next time she went out to change laundry, she wasn't quite as afraid. She wasn't quite as cautious. She was careful and slow, yes; but not nearly as guarded. And after completing more and more ventures into the laundry room, that entry in her dictionary of dangers updated again and again: Laundry Room = Low Chance of Seeing Snake = Low Chance of Bite/Interaction
Laundry Room = Little-to-None Chance of Seeing Snake = Little-to-None Chance of Bite/Interaction
She walked out into the laundry room with calm and confidence. Yet, she was forever changed. She would always remember the day there was snake in the laundry room. And yet it just didn't feel as threatening as it once was.
And that is the resolution of a fairly simple, single-event trauma. In the natural coarse of life, trauma occurs. And then we process through it; we update our alarm system. We don't forget the occurrence, and yet, the threat is diminished. We feel stronger and empowered. We move on with life.
The problem comes in when we are overwhelmed and the trauma sticks, for whatever reason. Maybe we were too young for our dictionaries of danger to update accurately or effectively. Or we were repeatedly exposed to the same trauma for an extended period of time, and our systems refuse to update the entries to lower-level threats. Or maybe the trauma was complex in nature. Or possibly we just never got the chance to update that entry due to it being a single-event trauma. Maybe we tried to update the entry and found, to our surprise and confirmation, that the trauma was still waiting for us. Maybe our systems were flooded with fear and alerts over and over, and now they are just unable to update the threat entries. The alerts won't shut off. Our bodies can't disengage from that one specific data entry our dictionary of dangers.
And then the trauma starts to interfere with life. The attempts to keep us safe and alive start to prevent us from being able to live our lives. The data entry remains emotionally-charged, causing nightmares, flashbacks, or invasive thoughts. We feel pervasive sadness, guilt, shame, anger, frustration, or hopelessness. We are unable to relax because of the possibility of those threats. We develop generalized anxiety or debilitating phobias. We feel constantly on edge. We feel stuck and unable to move on from what happened.
And that's where trauma-focused therapies come into play. Trauma therapists are trained in helping individuals move through the emotions and memories of those traumas, regardless how big or small the trauma. Trauma therapists are trained in helping the system update those data entries in a safe, healing environment. Trauma therapists work to help the individual process out the trauma, move through the emotion, and address anything that comes up during the process. And through the process, the trauma doesn't disappear. It becomes an empowering step that helps the individual realize their own strength and power. It changes from a stumbling block into a building block. It becomes workable and relevant. Not limiting and rigid.
So, if you find yourself or a loved one struggling with moving on after the occurrence of a trauma, reach out to a therapist who specializes in trauma-work. No one deserves to be doomed to live a life locked in place. No one deserves to be doomed to carry the weight of an overfilled dictionary of dangers. No one deserves to be doomed to living in constant fear and anxiety. Entries can be updated. Effects can be lessened. Memories can be resolved. Emotions can be processed. Trauma can be healed.
Sometimes we just need the opportunity.